Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 November 2011
Issue No. 1072
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The masonic story

WHAT is Freemasonry? When did it come to Egypt? And what does it have to do with the Great Pyramid?

According to Wikipedia, studies on masonic history centre on the development, evolution and events of the fraternal organisation known as Freemasonry.

This history is generally separated into two time periods: before and after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Before this time, the facts and origins of Freemasonry are not absolutely known and are therefore frequently explained by theories or legends. After the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, the history of Freemasonry is very well documented and can be traced through the creation of hundreds of Grand Lodges that spread rapidly worldwide.

In recent years professional historians have been studying the impact of Freemasonry on the history of Europe and America in the 18th century. In its ritual context, Freemasonry employs an allegorical foundation myth: the foundation of the fraternity by the builders of King Solomon's Temple.

Beyond myth, Wikipedia says, there is a distinct absence of documentation as to Freemasonry's origins, and this has led to a great deal of speculation among historians and pseudo-historians both from within and from outside the fraternity.

Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. Most of the contents are highly speculative, and the precise origins of Freemasonry may be permanently lost to history. Some believe the scant available evidence points to the origins of Freemasonry as a fraternity that simply evolved out of the lodges of operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages. Others have disputed whether stonemasons were ever organised formally into guilds, and have criticised the suggestion that Freemasonry evolved out of such organisations as a trite myth, stemming merely from the fact that the fraternity uses stonemasonry as the core allegory for the organisation of its symbolism. In any event, the matter of the origins of Freemasonry continues to puzzle and mystify historians.

The birth of Freemasonry has variously been attributed to King Solomon and the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem; Euclid or Pythagoras; Moses; the Essenes; the Chaldeans; Druids; Gypsies or the Rosicrucians; not to mention Noah. Some of the more popular theories include Freemasonry's being an offshoot of the ancient mystery schools attached to mediaeval stonemasons' guilds or a direct heritage of the Knights Templar.

In a study entitled "Freemasonry in Egypt (1798- 1964) and a Special Publication of the Freemasonry's Constitution" provided by researcher in contemporary and modern history Wael Ibrahim El-Dessouki, a member of the Egyptian society of historical studies, as his master's thesis at Ain Shams University (under the supervision of Professor Ahmed Zakarei El-Shalaq and published as a book by Dar Al-Nahda), the author links the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars to the dissemination of the "Society" outside its known borders. Which is why, by the late 19th century, masonic lodges were scattered across the Ottoman Empire from Constantinople, where the Young Turks were beguiled by the secretive brotherhood, to Syria and Egypt, where emerging nationalists aped their European assailants in their inherent opposition to autocratic authority. In Egypt, Freemasonry imploded into feuding camps: Britain and French, ostensibly reflecting the dual imperialistic control -- military and cultural -- which had entrenched itself along the Nile Valley. El-Dessouki wrote that Freemasonry first appeared in Egypt on 1798, introduced by French Masons in Napoleon's armies. Napoleon published pamphlets about respecting the Muslim religion in founding the Isis Lodge, into which several eminent people were initiated.

The name "Isis" was adopted after the mysterious rites of the Priests of Isis, sister and wife of Osiris and a prominent figure in Egyptian mythology. It practised the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Memphis, named after the place where the fraternity of priests met and which was the great seat of wisdom and mysteries of the Egyptians. The Ancient and Primitive Rite of Memphis continues the Hermetic and spiritual teachings of the Ancient Egyptians. The Rite is known to practise 95 Degrees, each with their respective secrets and ceremonies.

The Isis Lodge prospered under its first Master, General Kleber, until he was murdered in 1800. At this time, following the withdrawal of the French, Freemasonry seems to have gone underground.

In 1830, a group of Italians formed the Carbonari Lodge in Alexandria. This Lodge was altogether political and, as its activities were closely watched by the government, its meetings were held in complete secrecy. It proved popular, however, and another, the Menes Lodge, working the Memphis Rite, was founded. This also prospered.

One of the most active members of the Rite of Memphis was Samuel Honnis, who founded a number of French Lodges in Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez and Cairo, including the Al-Ahram in Alexandria in 1845. This was recognised by the government and many senior officials were initiated into it, including the famous Emir Abdel-Gazairi, who fought the French in Algeria and, whilst exiled in Syria, gave refuge to and saved hundreds of Christian families during the Damascus massacres. Another famous member of the Rite of Memphis was Salvatore Zola. He also founded the first Italian Lodge to work the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in Alexandria in 1849.

In 1836, El-Dessouki continued, the Sovereign Sanctuary of the Rite of Memphis in France issued a warrant for a Provincial Grand Council in Egypt and several more Lodges were founded in the country up to 1862, all of which worked in perfect harmony with the French Provincial Grand Lodge.

However, Egyptian Masons who found themselves working under such varied constitutions decided to have one of their own. In 1864, a provisional warrant (confirmed in 1866) was granted by the Grand Orient of Italy creating the Grand Orient of Egypt to work the higher Degrees and a National Grand Lodge of Egypt to work the first three Degrees.

This placed the order between the many rites and constitutions, and this Masonic Authority gradually became recognised worldwide. Prince Halim was made Supreme Grand Commander and was succeeded by Salvatore Zola.

Khedive Ismail, although himself not a Mason, patronised the order as a prominent humanitarian organisation and allowed his son Tewfik to be initiated. In 1881, Khedive Tewfik Pasha became Grand Master and held sway over more than 500 Lodges working in English, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Arabic, and obtained recognition for the Grand Lodge of Egypt from most of the recognised Grand Lodges of the world. Further research by Moussa Sindaha shows that Khedive Tewfik in fact assigned his duties to Hussein Fakhri Basha, the justice minister, and that the number of Lodges was nearer 56 than 500. In 1891, Khedive Tewfik Pasha ceded his office to Idris Bey Ragheb.

Some historians say that Freemasonry in Egypt came out of the closet during the Orabi Revolt of 1882. That Ahmed Orabi Pasha was himself a member of the Order was never proved, but several of his supporters were.

The British-led kangaroo court in Cairo declared Orabi and his Freemason supporters guilty as charged. While Orabi was exiled to the crown colony of Ceylon, Orabi sympathisers were sentenced to imprisonment and fines ranging from LE1,000 to 5,000. The situation turned on the British several decades later with the arrival of Mohamed Farid and Saad Zagloul. Self-declared Freemasons, they respectively headed the National and Wafd parties which called for popular uprisings against Egypt's British occupiers.

With time, Freemasonry rivalries increased in proportion to the numbers of halls and lodges that surfaced all over Egypt. Scottish, French, Italian and English halls operated side by side with the National Grand Lodge of Egypt. In Egypt, 54 lodges were in operation. Later, between 1940 and 1957, 18 Masonic halls were listed in Cairo, 33 in Alexandria, 10 in Port Said, two in Mansoura, two in Ismailia and one each in Fayoum, Mehalla Al-Kobra and Minya. Throughout that period, the largest and most important Masonic Hall was located in Toussoun Street in Alexandria.

Ignoring its working class origins, modern Freemasonry sought to attract the privileged elite. Since faith was of no importance, Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims from the powerful elite were initiated into Lodges.

When attacks against Freemasonry multiplied in the 19th century, in Europe one race was repeatedly singled out as a favourite target. Living as a minority almost everywhere, Jews perceived the Freemasons as a way of achieving their personal goals, and with time they became the torchbearers of Freemasonry. Since much of the masonic symbolism, ritual and erudition was linked to Jewish mysticism, the accusations cropped up whenever an economic crisis loomed or when the purported Judeo-Christian alliance fell out of favour.

The Vatican, which saw any Freemasons other than their own as a major threat, was at the vanguard of any anti-Freemasonry movement. However, in a characteristically tolerant Egypt, Freemasonry flourished. There were two kinds of Freemasons in Egypt: those such as landowners who adhered to the traditionalist English Freemasonry, and others who because of their fervent nationalism, joined the liberal French lodges led in Egypt by Gamaleddin El-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, who, interestingly, tended to address his companions as "ikhwan al-safaa wa khullan al-wafaa" ( colleagues of transparency and friends of serenity.)

Anti-Freemasonry articles cropped up in the post- 1948 Arab World "proving" the connection between Zionism and Freemasonry. In Egypt, arguments levelled against Freemasonry were selectively derived from turn-of-the-century freemasons George Zaidan and Shahin Makarius. Both writers had commended businessmen, many of them Jewish, for their active role in reviving Egypt's capitalistic economy. Six decades later their statements were salaciously re- interpreted so that the businessmen of the past were portrayed as eager tools of a Judeo-Zionist collusion bent on dominating the regional economy.

After the 1952 revolution, Masonic Lodges lost many of their more affluent members. Some freemasons, whether out of fear or self-interest, simply stopped turning up at meetings so that even the all-Egyptian Lodges found it difficult to support themselves.

On 4 April 1964, the Masonic Temple on Alexandria's Toussoun Street was shut down by order of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The reason: "Associations with undeclared agendas were incompatible with rules covering non-profit organisations."

Sufficiently disturbing evidence for the State to be concerned about Freemasonry's political goals would turn up the following year in Damascus when master spy Eli Cohen was apprehended. Having eluded Syrian intelligence for many years by posing as an Arab, it was discovered that Eli had been a Freemason in Egypt where he was born.

El-Dessouki said his thesis was a review of human history over a span of time during which he discovered that there was no organisation or group similar to Freemasonry in mystery and ambiguity, or with comparable rumours about its ability to influence people.

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